Beyond the walls
Members of eight local places of faith take their desire to serve the community outside the walls of their buildings, creating innovative and effective programs that help everyone from children and youth to the homeless to the unemployed.
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A vision beyond church walls
Greater Cornerstone Baptist Church
Pastor Willard Jones knew he faced some challenges when he became pastor of Greater Cornerstone Baptist Church in 1996. Located in the South Haven area of west Tulsa, the small church existed in the midst of decline and poverty.
“This was an impoverished area with drug dealers and gang bangers taking over the streets,” says Jones, a pastor’s son whose career included stints as an educator and businessman.
Fortunately, a few years later, South Haven got a lot of help when law enforcement began a decisive battle against crime. With the streets largely swept clean, Jones realized that there was a window of opportunity to transform the area before it slid back into trouble.
“At that point, we were faced with the question of, what is the church going to do for the people of this area?” Jones says. “What kind of hope could we give? So, rather than move out of the community, we decided to make it better.”
About six years ago, the idea arose of what will soon become The Greater Cornerstone Community Center (a formal name is yet to be decided).
Phil Taylor, a friend of Jones and pastor of west Tulsa’s Carbondale Assembly of God, remembers how Jones and others prayed about the project.
“We would pray together that there would be community transformation for that area and all of west Tulsa,” Taylor says. “We wanted to see it turn around and that God would intervene in a powerful way. I think we’re seeing an answer to those prayers now.”
That answer may well be the $7.2 million center, which is expected to open next June, offering South Haven’s low-income residents a wide range of services and recreation. The facility will house branches of Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Family & Children’s Services, Goodwill Industries of Tulsa and others.
“It’s going to be a one-stop shop,” Jones says. “We provide the space for these agencies to do what they do best. The people need them. We’re talking about an area where 20 percent of households live in poverty with an annual income of $12,000 to $14,000. That’s poverty.”
Jones and his church of several hundred members led the charge for the 20,000-square-foot center, acquiring funding from foundations, corporations, other churches and individuals.
The motivation for Jones and Greater Cornerstone is simple.
“God is love, and you can’t confine the love of God to (being inside) church,” he says. “You’ve got to take it out to people. People want to see a sermon, not just hear a sermon, and I believe that is what we’re doing here. That is our rule and our charge, to go beyond the walls of the church.”
Groceries fill the hunger gap
When members of Guts Church heard that Oklahoma is one of the hungriest and most food-insecure states in the nation (fourth in the number of people who are “very low food insecure,” according to the USDA), they knew they had to do something about it.
“We looked at the stats and thought we ought to be doing something about it,” says Taylor Scheer, son of church founders and lead pastors Bill and Sandy Scheer.
With more than 5,000 members, Guts responded in September 2010 with a program simply called Friday Groceries. Every Friday, needy Tulsans line up by the hundreds in front of the church’s distribution center off the Broken Arrow Expressway near Memorial Drive.
There they receive enough food to provide a family of four with three meals for four days. Scheer says that about 1,000 families receive assistance through Friday Groceries each week. In addition to food, they can get gently used clothing, furniture, toys and household items from the Guts church thrift store for minimal prices, and they can dine on a free lunch while they are there.
That’s what Adrian Martinez; his wife, Mindy; and their three children were doing after picking up their groceries.
Adrian Martinez was laid off from his job as a crate builder last year, and his wife supports the family on her meager earnings as a warehouse worker.
“We’re so grateful for this,” Mindy Martinez says. “It takes a lot of weight off our shoulders since money is so tight.”
With breadwinners in many families having been laid off, while others are scraping by on a single low-wage job, Guts helps families get by until better times arrive.
“Meeting the needs of the working poor is a big issue,” Scheer says. “A lot of these people work, but it’s just not enough.”
About 20 to 30 volunteers from Guts (volunteers don’t have to be Guts members) help run Friday Groceries, and they strive to make it a positive and dignified experience for all who come. The church supports the program and food also comes from outside sources, such as the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
“We want to give them hope,” Scheer says. “This is the kind of work the church should be doing. We want to fix the jaded perception of the religious church and just be here to help people.”
Saved by God to serve others
Antioch Baptist Church
The motto at north Tulsa’s Antioch Baptist Church is, “The church that triumphs.” The Rev. M.C. Potter knows that phrase is empty unless his church gets out and makes a difference in the surrounding community, which too often is marked by violence and other social problems.
“The reason we get involved is because we have so many concerns in our community, especially with our young people,” says Potter, who has served as Antioch’s pastor for 31 years. “We’ve got problems with teenage pregnancy, gangs, low grades, struggling family relations, so we have got to deal with that.”
One way the church deals with these problems is through its summer youth program, which began in 2003. The five-day-a-week program gives children and teens a safe and fun place to go, where participants can swim, try out karate and receive social and spiritual enrichment. But it’s far from just a place to fill kids’ time or keep them busy with recreation. With the help of tutors, the program is designed to give kids supplemental instruction in reading and math so they can return to school with their skills intact. Last year, during the program’s first summer, 204 children in the first through ninth grades attended the program.
The program aims to stimulate young people’s ambitions and dreams by taking participants to visit various professionals in the community, such as judges, who tell them how the legal system works; organizations, such as the Tulsa Gang Task Force, where they learn from experts about gang intervention; and the Tulsa Health Department to learn about health care, Potter says.
Potter admits that one of the challenges is changing the way some kids think.
“We’re trying to help them see beyond their own little world and that they need to make a contribution,” he says. “They can’t just live for themselves.”
Antioch, with a Sunday attendance of about 400, also provides ACT training for high school students and will help pay for the exams, which are key to college and university admission.
Church members are expected to give back in some way, Potter says.
“I ask each member to give two days of vacation to volunteer for the summer program,” says Potter, whose father, also a pastor, inspired him to be active in the community. “My dad set the precedent when I came back to Tulsa years ago, and he took me to Comanche Park Apartments to start a basketball program for the youths there.”
Since 1977, Antioch has continued to run a basketball ministry, seeking to steer teens away from gangs and other negative influences. On top of these outreaches, Antioch provides low-income students with school uniforms and other clothing and has adopted the Northgate community of north Tulsa to “provide whatever they need,” Potter says.
“I personally believe that when God saves you, he saves you from a particular concern, and now that you’ve been saved, you need to go and help save others,” Potter says. “I think that’s the way God set it up.”